U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said Wednesday he is retiring, giving President Donald Trump the chance to cement conservative control of the high court.
The 81-year-old Kennedy said in a statement he is stepping down after more than 30 years on the court. A Republican appointee, he has held the key vote on such high-profile issues as abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, guns, campaign finance and voting rights.
Kennedy said he has informed his colleagues and Trump of his plans, and that his retirement will take effect at the end of July.
Trump praised Kennedy as a man of “tremendous vision” and said his search for a new justice would begin “immediately.”
Without Kennedy, the court will be split between four liberal justices who were appointed by Democratic presidents and four conservatives who were named by Republicans.
List of 25 candidates
Trump’s nominee is likely to give the conservatives a solid majority and will face a Senate process in which Republicans hold the slimmest majority, so Democrats can’t delay confirmation.
Trump’s first high court nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, was confirmed in April 2017.
If past practice is any indication, Trump will name a nominee within weeks, setting in motion a process that could allow confirmation of a new justice by early August.
Trump already has a list of 25 candidates — 24 judges and Utah Sen. Mike Lee — and said he would choose a nominee from that list.
Prominent on that list are Judges Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania and William Pryor of Alabama, who were seriously considered for the seat that was eventually filled by Justice Neil Gorsuch, and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who serves on the federal appeals court in Washington, DC.
Kavanaugh is a longtime Washington insider, having served as a law clerk to Kennedy and then as a key member of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s team that produced the report that served as the basis for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
In October, Kavanaugh dissented when his court ruled that an undocumented teen in federal custody should be able to obtain an abortion immediately.
Abortion is likely to be one of the flash points in the nomination fight. Kennedy has mainly supported abortion rights in his time on the court, and Trump has made clear he would try to choose justices who want to overturn the landmark abortion rights case of Roe v. Wade. Such a dramatic step may not be immediately likely, but a more conservative court might be more willing to sustain abortion restrictions.
Interest groups across the political spectrum are expected to mobilize to support and fight the nomination because it is likely to push the court to the right.
Republicans currently hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, although that includes the ailing Sen. John McCain of Arizona. If Democrats stand united in opposition to Trump’s choice, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky can lose no more than one vote. If the Senate divides 50-50, Vice-President Mike Pence could break a tie to confirm the nominee.
Regardless of who replaces him, Kennedy’s departure will be a massive change for the high court, where he has been the crucial swing vote for more than a decade.
He has sided with the liberal justices on gay rights and abortion rights, as well as some cases involving race, the death penalty and the rights of people detained without charges at the Guantanamo Bay naval base. He has written all the court’s major gay rights decisions, including the 2015 ruling that declared same-sex marriage is a constitutional right nationwide.